The Over/Under: Nirvana


It was less than three years between the release of Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In that short span of time, Nirvana managed to become one of the most popular and important alternative bands in the world, and after Cobain’s death, praise for the band was used as a salve by critics to heal the pain and signify the loss. But maybe a new rule should be made: No legacy assertions about a recently departed musician until that legacy has at least had a chance to show some signs of being real. If you just went by the “rock history books,” you’d think it was Nirvana that awakened the mainstream to alternative music, that radio today was ruled by Nirvana copycat bands and that Cobain was actually the spokesperson for a generation. But none of that’s true. We’ve had alternative bands crossing over into the mainstream pretty much constantly since the Beatles. Corporate radio has been more influenced by Pearl Jam than anyone else in the years since, and Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted (released six months later) sold about 100th of what Nevermind did and probably had a greater impact on indie/alternative music than anything Nirvana ever recorded. With a straight face, Nirvana was called the most influential musical group since the Beatles, but will anyone make that assertion in 2010? The whole notion of Nirvana bringing anything to the mainstream or being innovative in any way is simply false: a result of the blind beatification of the shocked and grieving. People were aware of punk rock, even if they weren’t seeing it on MTV all the time. But that’s OK. Cobain himself admitted his band was nothing new and was always quick to promote the groups that influenced him. You certainly can’t hold it against him. I think he would have laughed at the thought of being Guitar World magazine’s “guitarist of the ’90s.” Nirvana was an extremely talented group, one of my favorites, certainly, but as it stands now, Cobain and Co. were an anomaly and never should have been in the running for World’s Biggest Band. (Which in 1994, you could probably argue, it was.) At this point, it’s tempting to lump Nirvana’s entire catalog into the overrated category, but obviously we can’t do that. Besides, with the massive popularity of only a handful of the band’s singles, there are some truly great tracks that fell by the wayside. Here are Nirvana’s five most overrated and five most underrated songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Nirvana Songs
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

I know, I know. Typical. But what am I supposed to do here? It’s a great song—especially live—and it was the band’s biggest hit, but the whole thing was built around a riff that even Cobain admitted was cheesy. And who hasn’t heard it a million times? I used to think “Brown Eyed Girl” was the song I had unintentionally heard more than any other in my life, but I just realized it’s probably this one. It’s been overplayed everywhere, made so many best-of all-time lists and been referenced in pop-culture commentary so much that there is no way it can’t be overrated. Part of this song’s magic is that it has real “pop” power: It’s catchy, and it can be interpreted as being about the song, the band, the crowd and/or the performance itself all at once. It’s meta, making it instantly relatable for nearly everyone. The other part of the magic is David Geffen and the influence of MTV. Without them, Nevermind never sells 10 million records. If Nirvana had never signed to Geffen, would Cobain still be alive?

2. “Sliver” (1990)
This was originally released as a Sub Pop single but later appeared on odds-and-sods comp Incesticide. “Mom and dad went to a show/Dropped me off at Grandpa Joe’s/I kicked and screamed said please don’t go/Gramma take me home.” The mood of the song and the way Cobain sings it give the impression that it could be about an abusive grandfather, but the lyrics don’t really suggest it—aside from the kid not wanting to hang with his grandparents for the night. So it’s open to interpretation. Could be about an abusive grandfather, could be about a kid not wanting to be ditched by his parents. Bob Pollard says, “You gotta write songs for the kids.” If you think about this song as Cobain writing for the kids, it’s great. If it’s about molestation, can we listen to something else?

3. “Polly” (1991)
This Nevermind track actually dates back to 1988 and went through a few transformations and title changes before appearing on the album. Based on a true story of the abduction, rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl—told from the perspective of the kidnapper—it’s heavy stuff and deftly written, as the song still manages to not sound cheesy or too “on the nose” almost 20 years later. “Polly” was a live favorite and appeared in its MTV Unplugged performance, but considering the usual fan reaction to the song, the meaning and real-life tragedy was probably lost on a lot of people. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone liked to sing along with it or be reminded of such a horrible act, but I guess it’s pretty catchy.

4. “Come As You Are” (1991)
The lazy, watery intro to this second single from Nevermind was the first riff I ever learned to play on guitar. Listening to it now, especially in the context of the rest of the album and what came before, it sounds so different than everything else. Maybe it’s just the phaser effect, but it’s like the song had been sprinkled with some of the Geffen company’s “radio hit single” magic dust. Cobain’s vocals are so clear and upfront, and the fact that the song doesn’t really get loud makes it sound like a different band. I could almost hear Pearl Jam doing this song. Nevermind track “Drain You” is catchier and more propulsive, and with its Sonic Youth-esque jammy bridge, it’s just better all around, but it didn’t get the same attention.

5. “All Apologies” (1993)
The In Utero version of this song was over-produced. (Strings, anyone?) The Unplugged version was overplayed. And Nirvana had better songs. “What else should I write? I don’t have the right.”

In Utero Version:

Unplugged Version:

:: The Five Most Underrated Nirvana Songs
1. “Serve The Servants” (1993)

Probably one of Cobain’s most autobiographical songs, this starts with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” then finds the narrator forgiving his father for divorcing his mother: “That legendary divorce is such a bore … I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad/I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore.” It’s one Nirvana’s most melodically complex songs, and it bears some significant emotional weight. In high school, my friends and I liked this song so much we named our band Servant’s Servant. With all of the standouts on In Utero, this opening number usually goes forgotten.

2. “Sappy” (1993)
An outtake from In Utero, this song appeared as an unlisted, hidden track on the No Alternative benefit compilation. Hearing it for the first time was akin to finding buried treasure. Rarely played live and not properly released until the With The Lights Out boxed set, “Sappy” could have easily been a radio single.

3. “Lounge Act” (1991)
One of the catchiest and most rocking songs on Nevermind, this is yet another tune that was overlooked when it came to the selection of singles. Supposedly the reason the song was so neglected was that it was about one of Cobain’s ex-girlfriends, Bikini Kill singer Tobi Vail; after he became involved with Courtney Love, he didn’t want to play the song around her.

4. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” (1993)
This was inspired by a fictionalized biography Cobain read of the rebellious, alcoholic Frances Farmer, a Seattle-born actress who was institutionalized for part of her adult life and was the rumored victim of an involuntary lobotomy. The story behind this song is tragic and fascinating, but it’s Cobain’s pleading for a woman who can no longer feel (“I miss the comfort in being sad”) that really stabs you in the heart.

5. “Marigold” (1993)
With vocals by Dave Grohl, “Marigold” is the only song in Nirvana’s catalog to have had no contribution from Cobain. It originally appeared on the cassette-only Pocketwatch as a release under Grohl’s pseudonym, Late!. Obviously a sign of things to come for Grohl, it was later released on Foo Fighters live album Skin And Bones. What would have happened if Cobain had stayed with us and Nirvana had stayed together? Would the band dynamic have gradually shifted to include more Grohl songs like this one and those that later came from Foo Fighters? Maybe Nirvana actually would have been the next Beatles.

—Edward Fairchild

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